Sunday, March 26, 2017

Felix Arnold's "Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean"

Felix Arnold is both an architect and archaeologist who has conducted extensive field work in Egypt, Spain and Syria. As a senior research fellow of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, he currently directs excavation projects at Córdoba (Spain), Dahshur, and Elephantine (Egypt).

Arnold applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History, and reported the following:
Page 99 is a great page. In the center of the page is a line drawing of the facade of a palace – one of the most beautiful façades of the Islamic culture that I know. The façade could be completely hidden behind two enormous wooden shutters. Opening those shutters was like opening a treasury chest, or a box of chocolates. Once opened, the shutters revealed a wide, open arcade of three arches, surmounted by a panel of intricate geometric patterns. Above the drawing of the façade is the floor plan of the palace. I just love floor plans. Like a computer game they seem to be generated by a hidden mathematical formula that governs the proportions and interconnections of spaces. At the same time the ground plan is all that you need to image the complete building as a three dimensional object, an object through which you can walk, and marvel at from any point of view you chose. Below the drawings is a rather random snippet of text, a segment of one of those descriptions that may seem rather long winding, and offsetting to a reader not accustomed to dealing with architecture. One sentence nevertheless stands out on the page, at the beginning of a paragraph: “The typology of the reception area is unique in all of Córdoba.” What I like about that sentence is that it suggests that the building has individuality, and even character. For me, every building is unique, and has a personality all of its own. In this case, what makes the building unique is the way spaces are placed next to each other, instead of one behind the other. Features that make a building unique reveal, if only in a fleeting way, the thoughts of an architect of the distant past: “let’s try something different, something that has never been done before.” Such thoughts are familiar to architects working today, but are often deemed too modern to have occurred in the past. I strongly believe, however, that such thoughts accompany any kind of innovation, present or past. Innovative ideas are timeless, as fresh today as at the moment they entered a mind for the first time. And more than anything this belief in the accessibility of the mind of architects has guided me in writing the book, and in fact in looking at any architecture, Islamic or otherwise. Yes, I do like that page 99, however random it appears at first glance.
Learn more about Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue